The Right to Culture & Creativity

Recent events have got me thinking a lot about ‘the right to culture’, and ‘the right to creativity’. Last year I took a PGCert in Teaching Creative Writing at Cambridge University, thanks to a bursary from First Story, and one of the things we talked about a lot was ‘What is creativity?’ and ‘Can creativity be taught?’

In the last couple of years our esteemed political overlords, and I use the word ‘esteemed’ here in the lightest possible sense, have implemented changes to Higher Education funding, of which we are now seeing the consequences. Universities are being driven towards closing courses that don’t immediately lead to sufficient earning potential in the years immediately after graduating. This has led to predictable consequences in the arts and humanities. As all this happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about routes into culture and creativity for young people who might have otherwise taken those courses, if they hadn’t closed.

The word ‘culture’ has two meanings: it can mean ‘social culture’, a set of shared meanings, customs, and ways of living, that come from shared heritage, proximity, family, or sometimes shared interest in a subculture. It can also mean ‘artistic culture’, which I’ll call Culture with a Capital C. The association here is with ballet, opera, some types of theatre, and any type of ‘High Culture’ which can be perceived as exclusionary.

For me culture can be both. It can be arts, music, poetry, or anything created within and from a subculture or human culture. The culture or objects created may not be considered ‘High Art’, but it’s still a part of artistic culture. It’s important to say this because people have very different understandings of what counts as ‘proper Artistic Culture’. Throughout my PGCert, I always argued that ‘folk writing’, as I termed it, poetry and stories created in community settings, is just as ‘proper’ as any literary work created by somebody with a PhD or any other type of degree.

In England, we’ve got this overarching idea that ‘making art’ and ‘creativity’ is something that Proper Artists do, and that most ordinary people aren’t creative really. Proper Artists have got talent, probably given to them by a god of some type, they’ve got ideas, probably a degree in it or if not certainly a lot of family money and connections behind them, maybe both, and also, Proper Artists have probably got a Beret or an Imaginary Beret that gives them special powers. In this schema about the world, Creativity is a thing that only certain people are allowed to do or be, and only the talented few Proper Artists can do it. But I’m here to tell you this idea is WRONG. Creativity is and can be for everyone.

We have this overriding idea in this country, and it is an idea strongly supported by the way that arts funding works (something I’ll write about another time) and by the way art gets made, created, publicised and seen (again, something I’ll write about another time) that there’s no way into being creative for somebody who isn’t already A Proper Artist. This idea is supported by the opacity of how our professional arts world functions. A person might ask the question: How come Tracy Emin gets to be a professional artist, but my friend Ian who paints pictures that hardly anybody’s ever seen, doesn’t? How come some artworks hang in the National Gallery and others don’t? How come some absolutely brilliant artists have to keep their paintings stacked up against their kitchen wall or in a cellar, because they’ve got nowhere else to keep them? Why do some people get permission and support to create huge public artworks and others don’t? And how do you get the answers to these questions?

Yet, the thing is, the drive to be creative is in all of us. I argue that the drive to be creative is a fundamental human drive, just as much as is the drive to eat, to sleep, to find a hobby we like, to form relationships and to make or join a family. If you’ve read this far and said to yourself: “Well that’s just stupid, because I’m not creative at all”, have a rethink. How do you make a dinner when you’ve got hardly anything in the fridge? You use your creativity to make something out of whatever few things you do have. What do you do when you’re bored in a work meeting? You draw in the corners of your notebook, or you let your mind wander, thinking about all of the hundreds of things you’d rather be doing than sitting in the meeting. All of these are creative activities. As we think of Culture with a Big or Little C, maybe we can think of creativity a similar way. There’s Creativity and there’s creativity, and all of us are creative.

Increased professionalisation of the arts ever highers the barriers to entry. To make a living in the arts, to be a Proper Artist of the type who gets paid and only ever Does Art For A Living, you need luck, contacts, you need connections, time, you need experience, all sorts of things. Plenty of us in the creative world make part of our living from teaching others, I know I do. But Proper Artists who get to do their own art for a living, and get paid for it, are very few indeed. How do you get to that point? If you know, please tell me, because I would like it to be me please.

There’s a pernicious idea going about these days that the best way to value how good art is is to look at how much money the art in question makes. In order words, ‘commercial art is the best’. You will not be surprised to hear that Tories (Oliver Dowden, Nadine Dorries) are big fans of this idea. Before you say “You’d think Culture Secretaries would have a better idea about how culture works,” hold on a minute.

Firstly, what’s the problem with saying that Commercial Art is the Best Art, and all other Art can take its Imaginary Beret and paintings propped up against somebody’s kitchen wall and Fuck Off because it can’t pay for itself? I will tell you.

Purely valuing Culture using pounds and pence (or the guinea and the shilling, if the Tories get their way in wanting to take us back to the seventies) marginalises all culture that’s daring, that’s weird in some way, that maybe has niche interest; it dismisses the idea that culture is an ecosystem that relies on new ideas and concepts, and the trading of these between minds. The commercialisation incentive encourages making safe choices. It discourages artists from being brave, from learning, from trying out new ideas, and crucially, it discourages institutions who incubate and support new work from supporting artists who might be a bit weird or different or strange, instead funnelling those institutions towards supporting that work which is like something that’s gone before, and which won’t offend anybody; work which has broader appeal, and which sells lots of tickets / tote bags / books. The government wants to strategically encourage a type of commercially-driven cancel culture that stops weird new artists from developing and finding new audiences, which tells you everything you need to know about whose voices they want to hear.

I couldn’t possibly list all of the fine modern day authors that we wouldn’t have today were it not for risk-taking by the smaller presses, especially the Northern ones. It would take too long, for one thing, because there are so many of them. But I will say that many of the finest artists who ever lived never made enough money to survive purely from their art in their own lifetimes. Beethoven was constantly, eternally, on a drive to find new subscribers to support the creation of new work. If Beethoven were alive today, he’d have five Kickstarters on the go (“Support Me To Create My Brand New Groundbreaking Pastoral Symphony!”) and a separate Patreon to support his passion for paying his rent. He’d be that guy constantly posting to Twitter about how if all his followers gave him 10 Marks, he could finish his next Symphony in time to keep the bailiffs off. Philip K Dick died before the film adaptation of Blade Runner came out, an event which made him a household name and a bestselling author. He was dead by then, so he didn’t get to enjoy the benefits. Mozart, though successful in his lifetime to a degree, famously had the type of income uncertainty that necessitated constantly moving his family to ever smaller and cheaper apartments. I could go on but you don’t need me to, you all already know the tune to this one.

For the Government to remove funding from courses that don’t immediately lead to graduates earning out their student loans misses the true values of the arts and humanities. The value of the arts and humanities is that they teach empathy, deep engagement with different texts (and when I say ‘texts’ this encompasses all types of art the student may encounter: artworks, sculptures, video and performance art; music, books, and so on.) Most crucially, they teach students a critical language and the ability to evaluate information. The pay-off may not be in how much students earn immediately after they graduate. It may be in a lifetime of being able to weigh up complex information, of your understanding of creativity paying off in unexpected ways, sometimes years afterwards. I’ve got a horse in this race. Its name is “I studied music at a former polytechnic.” My first job after graduating was in a care home, looking after adults with learning disabilities. I could have gone into one of the graduate schemes, but none appealed. Milk-round to join the civil service? No thanks, I don’t really understand what that is. Apply to join the graduate scheme at a global weapons manufacturer? No thanks, too evil. Thanks, humanities, for teaching me the value of human life! Around the time I graduated, one of my tutors advised me against going into arts administration. “You’d be bored,” he said. “It’ll be a waste of your degree.” I’m not sure I totally agree, but perhaps his words convey something about where an arts or humanities degree can lead: often into completely unexpected places. It wasn’t until some years later, struggling with the debt incurred by taking a another similarly ‘non-profitable’ course, that I decided I wanted to take writing seriously and become an author. Sorry, become an Author, with a capital A. Without my incredibly non-profitable music degree, or my years supporting children and adults with learning disabilities, I couldn’t ever have written fiction. You might argue that for somebody with a University education to become a care worker is a waste of their degree. Personally, I couldn’t agree less. Working with those children and adults led me to develop more, not less, empathy; it allowed me to see things I never would have seen working in an office, to encounter deep joy, to support people to work towards their goals and live fulfilling lives; it was stressful, sometimes horrible, poorly paid for sure, but I’d argue it made me the woman I am today, and that without it, I couldn’t have written any of the novels or short stories I’ve created to date.

You might also say that reducing the ‘value’ of a degree to whether or not it immediately leads to a high earning graduate job shows a complete lack of imagination on the part of our esteemed overlords but that, of course, is not the point. It isn’t that our overlords lack imagination. These are intentional choices, aimed at choking the imagination and the empathy of us all. When humanities and the arts are systemically underfunded and access to them is limited, our ability to be an empathetic society decreases, and to understand the experiences of others, suffers. We lose the ability to critically evaluate information, and question where it comes from. These are all valuable skills taught in the study of the humanities and arts. More frightening yet, over time, with the loss of these skills, we lose the vocabulary to discuss what is happening to us. We lose the words to describe that we are losing our empathy, our kindness, our respect of and understanding towards others.

It’s frightening stuff, but here’s the good news. There are some fine organisations out there, like Arts Emergency, which support young people’s access to the arts. And the other bit of good news is that nobody can kill the human imagination. Many have tried and failed. A common feature of most dictatorships is the attempt to stifle and control the arts, why? Because the arts are a vehicle and a language through which we communicate with one another. Any type of art is a way to describe what is happening to us. It’s a way for an audience to enter the mind and experience of somebody else. Every artwork an empathy vehicle, if you will. Even if routes into professional studies of art are stymied, the one thing the Tories can’t do is to crush our/your drive to be creative. They can’t stop you from picking up a pencil or a spray can, or from using a community resource to create a riso poster. They can’t stop you from shonking together a t-shirt screenprinting device in your front room (look it up, it’s well easy), or from getting a guitar from a second hand shop and learning how to play it. Or for the less old-fashioned among you, they can’t stop you from making your own website, or downloading software onto your computer that allows you to create your own beats and what have you.

They might be trying hard to stop routes into the professional arts, but nobody can kill your imagination or your desire to be creative, no matter how much they might want to, or however hard they might try.

Enjoy this? Support me, the literary Beethoven, and buy me a Ko-Fi

Published by SJ Bradley

Author, short story writer, and arts projects manager from Leeds, UK.

One thought on “The Right to Culture & Creativity

  1. I have mixed feelings about funding for arts degrees, partly because of that perception you point to of the Beret of Power and Proper Artists, and how degrees prop up that elitism in a way. If we had more opportunities for arts participation outside of a 3-year big-commitment degree there might be less of an idea that Proper Artist=has arts degree, and that without such a degree (which only a limited number of people can do) there’s no chance. You don’t need a degree in creative writing to be an author, or a degree in Fine Art to paint and conversely there are people who sign up to a degree thinking it’s a gateway to an arts career when it really isn’t. However, I do think it’s ridiculous to try and establish the ‘worth’ of any degree by how much people earn after graduation, and I agree that art and creativity can’t be suppressed, and we need them more than ever.


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